- New coronavirus outbreaks at meat plants have increased to record highs recently in Georgia, the state that produces the most poultry. There have been similar rises in states including Arkansas, Alabama and North Carolina, according to The Wall Street Journal.
- The cases are reigniting fear among workers as plants remain open. Companies like Tyson Foods, Cargill, Smithfield Foods and JBS USA have put in some safety measures while also increasing processing line speeds and running extra shifts to get the $213 billion U.S. meat industry back to normal levels in recent weeks, the Journal reported.
- More than 120 groups launched a "week of action" against Tyson on Monday, demanding the company address the rising number of coronavirus cases in its facilities. A coalition of groups representing workers' rights, animal rights and the environment sent a letter to large Tyson shareholders Monday morning, urging the company to take immediate action.
Despite the safety precautions meat plants have implemented, coronavirus cases continue to rise, and not many plants are closing their doors.
In April, the number of coronavirus cases at meat plants across the country climbed into the thousands. Many strongly criticized the industry's response for waiting too long to implement safety precautions and close plants as workers caught the virus. After a growing number of plants temporarily shuttered to deep clean facilities and implement safety measures, President Donald Trump signed an executive order declaring meat plants as "critical infrastructure" using the Defense Production Act to keep facilities open and help prevent shortages.
Many critics of the order cautioned this could mean plants will stay open despite outbreaks and warned that it endangered workers. And now as plants have been reluctant to close, workers are still catching and spreading the virus. Last month, a JBS USA beef plant in Hyrum, Utah stayed partially open, even though 287 employees tested positive. In recent weeks, coronavirus cases per capita in counties with beef and pork plants have jumped at a similar rate to the national average, Will Sawyer, an economist with CoBank, told the Journal.
Although meat companies say they have already invested hundreds of millions of dollars in safety measures, including thermal scanners and dividers between workers, new cases are still being reported. Hundreds tested positive at a Tyson plant in Arkansas at the end of June.
As a result of the continued positive cases, more organizations are pushing for changes. On a press call late last month, the United Food and Commercial Workers union said 93 of their members in meatpacking and food processing plants have died since the pandemic began. UFCW, which is the largest food and retail union, asked companies and the government for additional protections. And just this week, more than 120 groups began pushing for a variety of actions from Tyson, including offering paid sick leave, slowing down slaughter line speeds and closing plants where workers have tested positive.
"We’re in such a crucial moment right now," Magaly Licolli of Venceremos, a worker-based grassroots organization pushing for better conditions for poultry employees, said in a statement. "For the future of the country, we must think deeply about the meaning of frontline food workers in our daily lives and stand up for their human rights and dignity — because they’ve always been essential, and if they don’t survive, we won’t survive."
But it's not just meat plants that are still seeing positive coronavirus cases. Workers at fresh produce packing plants and farms in the U.S. have increasingly started to test positive. Washington, which is one of the U.S.'s top areas for apples and sweet cherries, is seeing a surge in coronavirus cases that is challenging operations among farm workers, according to The Wall Street Journal. Employers at these farms, which produce $1 billion worth of apples, cherries and other crops annually, are hiring fewer guest workers as a result, and delaying their arrival as coronavirus cases continue to rise.